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Black Gold - Marc and Nick Francis interview

Nick Francis, co-director of Black Gold

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BRITISH filmmakers Marc and Nick Francis talk about their coffee documentary Black Gold, which is seeking to get fairer trade deals for Africa’s coffee farmers…

The film is released on National Coffee Day in the UK and the brothers firmly believe that now that they’ve taken the first steps in raising awarness about the winners and losers in the coffee industry, the first steps can be taken in improving the situation…

How did you first become involved with Black Gold?
Marc Francis: It was about 10 years ago when Nick ended up in Ethiopia and was there for a few months and realised that the country was vastly different from what he originally thought it was based on all the interviews that had come out of Ethiopia after the 1984 famine. He realised that Ethiopia is a beautiful country and rich in coffee. Back in 2002 we heard that coffee farmers were involved in a food crisis and we thought: “Well, the coffee industry here has been booming for the past 10 years, how can there be this situation where these coffee farmers – who are known for producing some of the best quality coffee in the world – are in this state?” So, that was the defining moment to go out there and try and tell this story. Given that everyone can relate to coffee, it’s a good starting point.

Q. The coffee industry did seem to explode all of a sudden… What do you think was the catalyst? Was it shows like Friends?
Nick Francis: Well, it’s often said that Friends inspired the whole Starbucks experience. When we started filming this, the price being paid to those farmers was the lowest it had been for the past 30 years. There was no regulation of the commodity in the market so essentially it was a free for all. In London alone, I think three and a half million cups of coffee are drunk every week and a new store is opening somewhere every week. But the farmers aren’t getting anything out of that and we’re at the point where that gap was absolutely explicit. Coffee is getting increasingly popular as a cultural thing as well. When you talk about things like Friends, you often describe cafes as a kind of third place – not home or work but a third place where we do social stuff but also you see people there for five hours a day on their laptop doing their thing.

Q. The Sundance Film Festival was the place where it really started to take off for the film. How important was that?
Marc Francis: Very important because it is a global platform for independent films. It was a great starting point for Black Gold to be there. It just so happened that Starbucks was one of the sponsors of the Sundance Film Festival at the time. So, here was a film that Sundance was supporting that showed another side of the coffee industry – that contrary to the image of happy coffee farmers that you see when you go and buy a cup of coffee Black Gold shows the lives of coffee farmers on the brink of destruction and living lives that are absolutely outrageous in terms of the poverty that they’re suffering. The more consumers that start to see that side of the picture, the more educated they might become and that might affect their bottom line if their consumers started asking questions with that in their mind.

Nick Francis: What was interesting about Sundance was when we arrived for our world premiere we’d only finished cutting the film that week. But every night Starbucks sent people to the screenings to try and get an idea of what audience reaction was going to be. They started issuing press releases to journalists. One of the name newspapers out there – the Salt Lake Tribune or something – described what they were doing as “going on a charm offensive”.

That really dictated what was going to happen for the rest of the year. Literally, a year on from that when the film opened in LA the LA Times gave it a glowing review on the same week that Blood Diamond came out. And because of the influence of that paper on the West Coast Starbucks responded by posting a whole urgent action response on their website urging everyone to feel good about drinking Starbucks coffee despite the fact that Black Gold was coming out. This is a corporation that earns over in excess of £5 billion.

What we’ve learned parallel to this is the power of film. It was after Sundance that the penny dropped, that we are communicating to the world and seeing how people would react. The first person to ask a question on the first night at Sundance referred to a scene at the end of the film where our guide, Tadesse Meskela is in a meeting with farmers discussing the cost of building a school. He was a local resident and he asked: “How much were they trying to raise?” We estimated it was $10,000 and he wrote a cheque there and then for $10,000, which we wired to Tadesse and he ended up building the school. While that’s not the explicit message of the film, which is really more about trade than aid, it nonetheless gave us the sense that the film had the potential to galvanise audiences.

We deliberately didn’t make it in a way that told audiences what to think. We wanted to leave many more questions rather than trying to give an encyclopaedic, conclusive, packaged analysis of the coffee industry. If you’re looking for that, you’re not going to get it. What you’re going to get is a kind of a story that starts raising lots of questions that people don’t often have time to ask themselves. Someone else mentioned to us that they’d divested $10,000 worth of stock that week of Sundance from one massive coffee company that they were looking to reinvest in a company with much sounder principles. They were the kind of things that Sundance brought out and it went global from then.

Q. Have you noticed things happening since the film has been shown over the course of the year? Have people started to boycott coffee companies, for example? And has there been more assistance in terms of supporting the farmers?
Marc Francis: Well, it was released in the States last year and the reaction we’ve had from the US audience has been quite immense and on many different levels. We’ve had people divesting stocks from one company and looking into investing in companies that have a more ethical buying policy. We’d never advocate boycotting coffee companies because while multi-national coffee companies are part of the problem, they can be part of the solution. They prop up the lives of 25 million coffee farmers around the world who grow coffee, let alone the people in the coffee industry. This is not about boycotting coffee companies it’s about ensuring that the prices paid to the coffee farmers are such that it doesn’t keep them in conditions of near slavery.

So, yes, as a result of the film we’ve seen that people have started to make more informed decisions about what they buy and started to ask questions about where they get their coffee from and how much they [companies] pay their coffee farmers. On a government level, we’ve had Ethiopian ambassadors turn up to screenings in Berlin, Washington and London. Tony Blair, himself, ended up meeting Tadesse in Downing Street after they’d had a screening at the House of Commons, so Tadesse took his message there.

Marc Francis, co-director of Black Gold

Q. Do you keep in touch with Tadesse Meskela [the film’s guide]?
Nick Francis: All the time. He gets about 100 emails every day. The film is screening around the world all the time and he’s absolutely inundated, so we’re in constant contact. He gets calls from journalists every day to be asked questions. I don’t think he realised early on exactly what we were doing because we were essentially the core crew when we were in production, filming in Ethiopia. He’d turn up at an airport and we’d be there and because we weren’t like a news crew flying in for a soundbite he was asking: “Why do they need so much material? Why do they keep coming back?”

But when he came to a screening we had in Seattle last April, there were 500 people in the audience watching it on a big screen and the penny dropped for him. When he stood up and got a standing ovation and then joined us on stage for a Q&A he realised the power of film because this was a message he’d been trying to talk about individually every single day but now he could see that this film was reaching millions of people around the world. He could then see that this would help take his message to a global stage and he was delighted.

Q. Has he seen benefits in real terms?
Nick Francis: Absolutely, especially in terms of his negotiating power. Already Nestle and Starbucks have flown out there to see him, I know that other big coffee companies are now starting to buy his coffee. Some smaller companies that have seen the film now want to trade directly with him. He’s been able to return more money back to the coffee growers and he keeps talking about finishing off social projects in the regions in which we were filming as a result. Tadesse’s main point, though, was to be able to negotiate a higher price and I think this has given him a confidence to be able to do that because he can point to the impact that the film’s had. There’s a certain amount of leverage that this kind of awareness can give him – and not just him but other people working in the area that he is. That’s crucial.

Q. Are you hopeful that progress will continue to be made? There’s a danger with anything, of course, that once the spotlight has passed over it things tend to get forgotten and companies might resort back to bad old ways?
Marc Francis: I think you’ve raised a very big question because I think we’re still at the very early stages of knowing which way it’s going to go. I think we’re at the very early stages of a consumer movement where they’re more concerned with where things come from. What you now have are these multi-national companies hijacking some of these terms – maybe one out of 10 coffees is fair trade or with Nestle, .2 per cent of all their coffee is fair trade certified coffee. But now they can market the fact that they have it. So, you can create a false impression. To what extent are the coffee companies really making their whole business philosophy embrace the concept of ethics? Or to what extent are they doing it as a PR move to pre-empt any criticism that might come their way? How do we differentiate between the rhetoric and the reality? That’s the challenge.

Nick Francis: To answer your question in a slightly different way, I don’t think coffee companies can go back to the way they were before. There is no back in my view. It was so limited what they were doing – and they’re only doing a tiny bit now. We’re not talking about seismic shifts here. But awareness is the first step to change. It’s what Tadesse says in the film. As filmmakers, as opposed to people who run campaign organisations, our main message is about building up a whole groundswell of awareness. Just by thinking about what you’re drinking, that’s the first step towards some kind of change.

Every screening we’ve had around the world, whether it’s been in the US or New Zealand, across Europe, or South America, some people in that audience want to do something. Some people spread the word about the film. Last month, we had more than 50,000 people visit our website. Other people want to start buying coffee that gives them some sort of guarantee that the farmers at the end of that cup aren’t being exploited.

Q. This has obviously helped to raise your profile as documentary filmmakers, so what’s next for you? Is it true that you’re working on a trilogy of films like this?
Nick Francis: Yeah, that might be the case. We’re developing a few different projects at the moment. It’s a little bit too early to say exactly what they are but certainly the kind of work we’re interested in doing is making us question some of the basic luxuries we have, our lifestyle and its interaction with the rest of the world. They won’t be like Black Gold necessarily but they’ll be exposing things that take us by surprise.

Q. I would imagine that the profile of Black Gold has helped to make future films. But do you see it perhaps being a hindrance as it leads to a certain amount of notoriety in terms of your ability to approach big companies?
Marc Francis: It’s a good point. I don’t know to be honest. We want to have a dialogue. We want to engage within a film and outside of a film. Even Black Gold, we don’t perceive it as being anti-corporate or anti-Starbucks. It’s a film that highlights the plight of the coffee farmers. We wanted to bring in the coffee companies to put their case forward.

Since then, there has been dialogue with them. We’ve been on other media shows and when we had our premiere in Seattle Starbucks invited us into their HQ and we sat down with their senior executives and ended up having a discussion about what Starbucks is or isn’t doing. I’d like to think that as a result of the film we’re still able to engage people on whatever subject we might be tackling.

Read our review of Black Gold

  1. I have been following the plight of Ethiopians for fair trade at the Ethiopian Portal website,

    Hope the Starbucks deal will bring some extra money to the poor farmers of Ethiopia

    See related blo here:


    Aster    Jun 9    #